I recently traveled many thousands of miles to attend a college roommate's wedding in Hawaii. For several reasons—the over-the-top destination, the formal toast I was slated to give, my all-but-unprecedented approval of a friend's choice of groom—I decided to splurge on a new dress for the occasion. The simple silk sheath that I bought was perfect: For once, I would look just right.
Except for one thing: My suitcase's contents really did shift while in flight. I mention this because, to my mother's lifelong anguish, I've never been a great believer in garment bags (or umbrellas or hair dryers). And when I opened my suitcase, I was horrified to find my beautiful dress crumpled beyond recognition.
The concierge regretted to inform me that the hotel offered no garment-freshening service, though I could pay $28 to have the dress professionally dry-cleaned by Monday—two days after the wedding. Since ironing the delicate fabric was out of the question, I saw no choice but to hang the dress in the shower and encourage fellow wedding guests to bathe at my place. By the following evening, with the dress no less wrinkled, I could hope only for a fast-setting sun.
Soon after I arrived at the reception, a relative of the bride bustled up to me with upraised eyebrows. "Oh, my," she said, looking me up and down. "I would've been happy to lend you my steamer." Her—steamer? This seemingly not-insane woman traveled with a steamer? "Well, of course," she said. "I never go anywhere without it," and no wonder, her expression implied.
Before that weekend, I'd assumed clothing steamers were unwieldy, industrial items. Was I ever wrong. These days, there is a range of handheld fabric steamers on the market—and they often cost less, and take up less suitcase real estate, than traditional irons. Best of all, portable steamers free you from the space constraints of an ironing board, an advantage not just for travelers but for small-apartment dwellers like me. You need only hang the garment against a wall before getting to work.
Sold and sold. Within hours of getting home, I went online in search of a fabric steamer that could rescue me from future on-the-road fashion disasters. And if a steamer could also replace the bulky iron that I am often too lazy to yank out of my closet, all the better.
I tested six handheld fabric steamers ranging in price from $24.99 to $69. I used the steamers on various types of garments: men's dress shirts, linen pants, cashmere sweaters, pillow shams, and a profoundly ugly silk kimono. I then handed over the steamers to my kempt-to-a-fault mother for a second, more seasoned opinion.
Portability (10 points)
I considered both size and weight in determining whether a fabric steamer is really and truly a practical travel accessory. A steamer gets an extra point if it's dual voltage and works in other countries.
Design/ease of use (10 points)
The travel clothes steamer is a simple beast. There are two types: steamers that resemble power drills and ones that look like electric teakettles. Which style is more effective? Other considerations: Is the steamer comfortable to operate for a prolonged period? Does it have an on/off button or any temperature-control options? Does it come with attachments—lint brushes, fabric combs, and the like—and are these attachments useful?
Performance (20 points)
Most critical of all: Does the steamer work, and on what types of clothing? On button-down dress shirts—the ultimate steaming challenge—does it pass the placket test? What about collars and cuffs? (Unless a shirt's extremities are crisp, says my mother, you might as well walk around in a sweat-stained T-shirt.) How quickly does the water heat up, and how hot does the steam get?Does the steamer dribble water and/or spit out excessive steam? Any burn risk? Last but not least: Will any of these steamers ever replace the good, old-fashioned iron?
Here are the results, from slovenly to silky smooth …
Samsonite Dual Voltage Garment Steamer, $30 The sweet little Samsonite falls into the electric-teakettle category. These machines are as uncomplicated as it gets: You pour water into an opening in the steamer's top, and once that water boils, it emerges as steam through a grill dotted with holes. This Samsonite is commendably compact, but you pay a price for portability. While I loved the design—not just the suitcase-friendly dimensions but the dual-strip fabric brush and folding handle—this 200-watt steamer just didn't do the job. The tepid steam barely straightened out the kimono and made almost no impact on the dress shirts I tested. Recommended for emergencies only, or for those who prize traveling light above all else.
Design/ease of use: 10